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Seven Lies About Lying -Part 1

By Errol Morris

August 5, 2009, 10:00 pm


Tell all the Truth but tell it slant –

Success in Circuit lies

Too bright for our infirm Delight

The Truth’s superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased

With explanation kind

The Truth must dazzle gradually

Or every man be blind –

— Emily Dickinson (#1129)

WikiMedia Commons “Joseph’s Tunic” Diego Velázquez, ca. 1630 1.

I was talking to Ricky Jay about lying and deception. I had an example from the Bible, specifically about Jacob and his 12 sons. (Five of them are depicted by Velazquez, above.) Ricky interrupted: “Which one? Reuben, Simeon, Levi, Judah, Dan, Napthali, Gad, Asher, Issachar, Zebulon, Joseph or Benjamin?”

“Uh . . . Joseph.”

Ricky Jay is an actor, bibliophile, historian of magic, arguably the greatest living sleight-of-hand artist, and a master of the art of deception. He seemed to be the perfect person to consult on the relationship between deception and lying. After all, it’s his business. I was telling the story about how the brothers sell Joseph into slavery.

ERROL MORRIS: They take his coat, rip it, smear it with blood, and show it to Jacob. They don’t tell Jacob that Joseph was eaten by a wild beast; Jacob makes the false inference himself. My theory is that deceit does not require language. To lie, you have to make a statement. You have to say something in words for it to be a lie. But deceit only requires misdirection. All it requires is the intent to have someone think something that is different from what you believe.

RICKY JAY: Right, it can be verbal.

ERROL MORRIS: It can be, but it doesn’t have to be. Whereas lying has to be verbal.

RICKY JAY: Lying has to be verbal. Do I believe that?

[a pause]

ERROL MORRIS: And it can’t be accidental. You can accidentally deceive somebody, but you can’t accidentally lie to somebody. If you’re lying to somebody, you have to know you’re doing it.

RICKY JAY: I’ve written about verbal deception, for example, the P.T. Barnum sign – “TO THE EGRESS” — to make someone believe something that was other than what was intended. Even though there was nothing wrong with it — it’s deceptive. [The sign is intended make people believe that they are about to visit some exotic animal, rather than heading to the exit.] I wrote an article about verbal deception in “Jay’s Journal” on the Bonassus.

“Jay’s Journal of Anomalies,” courtesy of Ricky Jay

The Bonassus was presented in 1821 as this extraordinarily exotic creature. I’ll read just the opening: “The Bonassus, according to contemporary handbills, has been captured as a six-week-old cub deep in the interiors of America …” —blah, blah, blah… “It was presented to a populous eager for amusement and edification” — this was in London — “whose appetite for curiosities both animal and human was insatiable.” The attraction said, “A newly discovered animal, comprising the head and eye of an elephant, the horns of an antelope, a long black beard, the hind parts of a lion, the foreparts of a bison, cloven-footed, has a flowing mane from shoulder to fetlock joint and chews the cud.” And underneath the line, “ ‘Take him for all in all, we ne’er shall look upon his like again.’ — Shakespeare.”

“Jay’s Journal of Anomalies,” courtesy of Ricky Jay

And I say,

“Using every conceivable method of prevarication, the playbills of the day unabashedly conceal the true identity of the newly discovered Bonassus, this new genus” — that’s a quote — “of the African Kingdom had never before been seen in Europe. He was none other than the American Buffalo. As for never seeing his like again, in 1821 the buffalo was the most numerous hoof-footed quadruped on the face of the earth.”


RICKY JAY: This is an issue called “Verbal Deception Deciphered.”

ERROL MORRIS: You were also telling me about a magician who refuses to lie.

RICKY JAY: He died recently. His name was Jerry Andrus, and he lived in Albany, Ore. And he always claimed that it was because he lived in Oregon that he had to invent his own stuff. He really was an original thinker in terms of magic. He just died. He was almost 90. [1]

Tyson Smith, Skeptical Media LLC Jerry Andrus

But he wouldn’t lie in doing an effect. So if he said, “I’m going to place this card in the middle of the deck,” then that’s what he did. [Ricky picked up a deck of cards and proceeded to offer an impressive display of legerdemain.] If I say to you, “I’m going to take this card, whatever it is, the King of Clubs, and you can see that I’m going to push that, right, into the center of the deck.” O.K., you saw me do that clearly?


RICKY JAY: And yet, the King of Clubs is right here. [It is sitting at the top of the deck.] So I truly did not push it into the center of the deck. I made you think that I pushed it into the center of the deck. But I didn’t push that card into the center of the deck and then show it to you on the top of the deck.

ERROL MORRIS: You may not be lying, but you’re still deceiving me.

RICKY JAY: Right, I’m absolutely deceiving you. He would also deceive you. He might go so far as to say, “It may appear as though I’m putting the card in the center of the deck.” But he would never say, “I am putting the card in the center of the deck.” He would not lie.

ERROL MORRIS: But doesn’t that alert people to the fact that they are being deceived? Doesn’t that make it more difficult to perform the trick?

RICKY JAY: Yes! It does make it more difficult, but that’s just the kind of guy he was. So he would never say, “I’m dealing the King of Clubs on the table,” and deal the bottom card and not the King of Clubs. He would not lie. He was an enormously principled fellow.

ERROL MORRIS: But do you have a problem lying?

RICKY JAY: Not only do I lie, I take real pleasure in lying, in the transmission of magic effects. It’s creative, how you do it. I could, indeed, put the King of Clubs in the center of the deck. So in this case, I want you to see that the King of Clubs is in the center of the deck. All right? That’s not a lie. And yet the King is now on top. I don’t think this was in his repertoire. But in that effect I did not lie to you at all. So that’s kind of fascinating.

Private Collection of Ricky Jay

ERROL MORRIS: I wonder if this bears out what I was saying before, the difference between a lie and a deception, that he would not allow himself a verbal lie.

RICKY JAY: But he would still absolutely deceive you.

ERROL MORRIS: But not lie.

Private Collection of Ricky Jay

RICKY JAY: You could wonder whether I’m lying to you now, about those two things and how they differ, because you don’t know. Because I know that you can’t follow the sleight of hand I’m doing to absolutely know for certain. And I’m not going to expose the method to show you that, but as your friend, I’m going to tell you that nothing about this was a lie. Everything I said in the transmission of these two effects was true. But in magic, there is magician to magician lying and obfuscation. To obfuscate the reconstruction of the effect – when a magician is fooled by another magician doing magic. In my career that’s not been the major passion, but it’s been the passion of a number of my mentors. The crowning achievement for them would be to create magic good enough to fool other magicians. For me, the most exciting thing is to create good magic that’s entertaining for an audience, and it would be lovely if a magician was fooled as well. But it’s an entertainment art. Dai Vernon, the greatest sleight of hand figure in the history of the art, rarely performed. But he invented magic and had an enormous influence on the whole range of sleight of hand. And so often the magic he was doing was to fool other magicians. You don’t want the magicians to be able to reconstruct it. So in the course of it, the other magician is not only being fooled by the physical deception, but made to think that something might have happened which did not happen, and if you thought that, you could never reconstruct how the effect was done.

ERROL MORRIS: So there’s a misdirection followed by a lie.

RICKY JAY: In any order. But you’re right, the lie part is verbal. You’re saying, “Remember, you shuffled the cards. Remember, you divided the deck.” And in this list of things you’re doing, one of them may be untrue. You may be lying. Ah, I did shuffle the cards. I did this but I didn’t do that. You’re reinforcing something that never happened.

Private Collection of Ricky Jay

ERROL MORRIS: A deception and a lie.

RICKY JAY: Deception is one of the things that I’m interested in. It’s a major component of my work. If someone said you had to sum up your interests in life in one word, the word would probably be “deception.” I think it encompasses more things I’m interested in than any other single word I can think of. Brindemour’s illusion of levitating a man. A 17th century engraving of a two-headed archer, which portrays him as a legitimate human anomaly. That clearly can not and did not exist. Right? The Davenport Brothers, who were the first performers to become famous from the cult of spiritualism, who convinced people that they were able to make manifestations while locked within a sealed cabinet. Incredibly successful. Chabert, the human salamander, who entered an oven with a raw steak in his hand: he emerged tartar, the steak was cooked to perfection. All of it based on real deception.

P.T. Barnum’s sign “TO THE EGRESS” is Ricky Jay’s example of a linguistic deception that is not a lie. There are no false statements — just a concatenation of misleading descriptions and associations. [2] You might think that once we have distinguished between lying and deception (and two kinds of deception, verbal and otherwise) that our problems are over. But lying is often identified with the avoidance of the truth or the acceptance of a falsehood. And it is to the theme of lying, truth and falsehood that I turn in the second part of this essay.




[1] For more information see the Andrus Web site,


[2] Ricky is uncertain about whether the sign was designed to remove customers from the premises or merely to get them to pay for admission twice. You leave the show, then you have to pay to get back in.


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